Lord above, someone stop me. These just keep getting longer and longer. I think I have a problem.
This week, in honor of the Season 7 finale on Friday, I’ve decided to do a five-part meta about why I love flawed, beautiful, broken Season 7 so much.
The next two stages of the Heroine’s Journey are The Descent and Eye of the Storm. As I wrote last week, in the Descent stage:
Now that the Heroine has made her life-changing decision, she must face the music and realize things actually must change. This is a stage about facing her fears and obstacles, like gates that must be opened. At first, the Heroine will try to use the weapons and tools she brought along to confront them, but they won’t work. Thus they are stripped away from her. The only way she gets past these obstacles is by finding the inner strength within to confront them.
Meanwhile, in the Eye of the Storm phase:
After facing her fears – maybe even the Big Baddie itself– the Heroine has a moment to catch her breath and come to grips with what has just occurred. She realizes that hey, actually, when push came to shove, she didn’t do half-bad. She starts to understand that she’s stronger than she thinks, better, smarter, more competent. She thinks maybe the hard part is finally over.
These two stages may be repeated over and over as needed, and basically, I think that Dean has spent most of Season 7 pingponging between the two, caught in a state of freefall as he’s stripped of the few remaining weapons and resources he has left.
Spoilery Season 7 Goodness – And A Whole Lotta Meta — Behind The Break:
By my count, Dean has lost:
Seven resources and allies, whose losses Dean has struggled – and failed – to cope with. He’s tried every coping mechanism he knows: Denial, faking a smile, drowning his sorrows in liquor, clinging tighter to what few resources he has left. Nothing works. And that’s because nothing ever will.
This part of Dean’s Heroine’s Journey corresponds fairly neatly to the myth that originated the idea of the Hero’s Journey, Inanna’s Descent. In it, the Akkadian goddess of love, Inanna, makes a voyage to visit her sister, Erishkigal, the queen of the Dead. To get to her palace at the heart of the Underworld, Inanna first chooses to equip herself with seven symbols of her finery and power, as protection for the long road ahead. But this arsenal doesn’t help Inanna like she thinks it will, and her finery is stripped away from her one by one as she descends to the bottom of the Underworld. By the time she meets Erishkigal, she is naked, empty-handed, and utterly vulnerable.
The seven bits and pieces Inanna arms herself with correspond to what the Akkadians thought of as the seven me, or virtues or attributes, of civilization, and the seven internal struggles that man must face. (They also line up nicely with the idea of the seven chakras, etc. – point is, it’s all very symbolic.) In the Descent phase, the Heroine generally confronts one or more of these introspective issues; throughout the course of Season 7, however, Dean has confronted all seven:
Let’s take them one by one:
Survival – what is Dean afraid of?
Dean’s greatest fear is abandonment. Growing up with no mother and an absent father, with no friends or girlfriends (or boyfriends) or any sort of meaningful relationship to speak of, Dean is intimately familiar with his own loneliness. For a long time, he even defined himself around it, shaping himself to fit all the absences in his life. Now that Sam’s around, of course, that part of his life is over, and ever since, Dean’s been terrified of returning to it. As he says in “Croatoan”, when it becomes clear he might have to live without his brother, “Who says I even want to?”
Yet even without Sam, Dean was never truly without a companion of sorts, for the one constant in Dean’s life is and always has been the Impala. When Sam was at Stanford, the Impala was there. When Sam was with Ruby, the Impala was there. When Sam was locked in the cage, the Impala was there (albeit kept in a shed). The Impala is Dean’s Baby, his faithful and trusty steed, and no matter how many times she gets wrecked and battered, Dean always fixes her, pouring himself into the one friend who has never let him down.
Yet at the beginning of Season 7, the Leviathan force Dean to park the Impala again – and this time, rather than tarping her in a backyard shed within easy reach, Dean must go on without her. He hates it and so do we – and the succession of junkers he drives, wrecks and steals becomes progressively more awful as time goes on – but it’s a necessary step in teaching him that he doesn’t need the Impala; that his fear of losing her and being alone once more is holding him back from becoming the man he must be.
When the Impala does return—because c’mon, it’s only a matter of time—Dean will likely relate to his Baby in a whole new light. Rather than viewing his car through the lens of his own fear of loneliness, Dean will appreciate her in a way he never has before. (As evidence this has occurred, look for Dean to notice something new about her that he’s never seen before, or perhaps she’ll return shinier, prettier, or in better condition than when Dean left her, etc.)
Pleasure – what gives Dean the greatest amount of guilt?
Sex, pie, hamburgers, anime porn, TV soap operas— Dean thinks he knows what makes him feel good: Guilty pleasures. All of Dean’s favorite things are essentially unhealthy indulgences that provide him an immediate burst of endorphins, but no real lasting satisfaction.
Dean thinks he’s a simple man with simple tastes, but the truth is, he underestimates himself. He denies himself more complex pleasures, because he feels guilty whenever he attempts to indulge in them – he thinks he doesn’t deserve them. (And guilt, of course, is the lubricant that keeps the Dean machine running.)
Now that the Leviathans’ additive has revealed even the simplest of Dean’s simple pleasures – pie – for the self-destructive indulgence it is, Dean will hopefully realize that the Leviathan have done him a favor. He doesn’t need to limit himself to quick-fix hedonisms – but more importantly, if he does indulge in those pleasures, he doesn’t need to consider them “guilty”, either. He will hopefully learn to own his pleasure, without apology.
Willpower – what is Dean ashamed of?
To this day, Dean has yet to truly confront what happened in Hell. (First there was an apocalypse to deal with, then all the stuff with getting Sam’s soul back, but I suspect that Dean would come up with an excuse not to confront it, even if one hadn’t been supplied.) But it continues to haunt him to this day.
Dean’s greatest shame is that he broke in Hell, that he climbed down off the rack and started torturing souls. Even though it’s something nobody blames him for, and everyone from angel to brother tells him that his response was only human—it doesn’t matter. Dean is ashamed of his own human vulnerability. That’s why, when Castiel shows up in Season 4, Dean doesn’t believe he deserved to be saved, and he never quite buys the line from Heaven that he is the Righteous Man. Even to the present day, he still believes Heaven made a mistake.
That’s why, I think, Dean takes to Frank Devereaux so well. Dirty, old, chubby, myopic, mean, Frank is the very picture of human vulnerability—and yet somehow, Frank is one of the best hunters Dean has ever met. Above all, Dean envies Frank’s survivability; somehow Frank has lived much longer than Dean thought Hunters could, and Dean wants to know how he pulled it off.
Frank fits the archetype of The Magi as laid out in 45 Master Characters (in that he is an unwilling mentor who could care less about the problems of the world and who just wants to be left alone). But Dean is the only one who realizes that this nasty, offputting shell is actually Frank’s greatest weapon. Frank is so vile for a reason: He uses his own human frailties as a way to keep everyone else at bay, to protect himself and keep others safe. Frank has somehow cultivated all his weaknesses and frailties and turned them into a powerful weapon, and that’s why he has survived as long as he has.
While Dean never quite fully adopts Frank’s crusty old Hunter routine, he does learn from Frank that human vulnerability—which Dean has always been ashamed of – can actually work for you, rather than against. To that end, it’s no coincidence that it’s Frank, not Sam, who teaches Dean how to hack into computer networks, given that Dean has always considered himself fairly techno-phobic. Frank is the one who teaches Dean not to be ashamed of his weaknesses, but to accept them, and when necessary, change them.
Giving/Receiving Love – what loss does Dean grieve?
This one’s easy, right? Dean grieves the loss of his BFF (and, in my opinion, love interest), Castiel.
Many fans have lambasted Season 7 for not showing Dean’s grief over Cas’s apparent death, but I believe quite the opposite—the writing this season has done nothing but call back to his loss. From the episode about the psychopathic Jeffery in love with a demon, to Dean killing Amy because Sam loved her and couldn’t (how does that plotline even make sense except as Dean trying to make up for his inability to kill Cas when he had the chance?), this season’s narratives have implicitly mirrored Dean’s inner turmoil and unspoken feelings again and again.
But here’s the kicker – it’s mostly unspoken. Dean expresses himself through actions, not words—the fact that he’s even able to muster the words “what Cas did, I can’t get over it, I don’t know why” is remarkable. Dean’s fighting against not only his usual inability to express emotions, but also decades of hyper-machismo conditioning—to admit he feels so strongly about a man who isn’t family would be nigh unto impossible for Dean, even if Cas hadn’t died. As much as I would’ve liked to see Dean verbally and eloquently articulate his thoughts of grief, he simply doesn’t know how.
And yet, he tries. I’ve always thought Dean and Cas shared a strong, if not necessarily romantic, bond, but Season 7 is what truly made me a die-hard Destiel shipper. I honestly believe there’s no other explanation for what Dean says and does this season other than grief over a lost romantic love.
For example, take this moment in “Defending Your Life”, when he chats up the bartender while ostensibly guilty about killing Amy:
Dean: [*pounds a double scotch*] I’ll do another.
Bartender: Love life or job? [*smiles at Dean’s confused look*] Two quick doubles, it’s something. I’m Mia, by the way.
Dean: Well, Mia. That is a… complex question.
If Dean were merely plagued by his guilt over killing Amy, then why doesn’t he just say “the job”?
That is, if we assume that Dean is not in love with Cas, then his response here makes no sense. If Dean wasn’t in love with Cas, then why would he joke about his love life conflicting with his job, when we know he hasn’t slept with anyone in nearly three seasons, not since Anna? If Dean were just trying to make a joke, then surely he could have come up with a funny response that didn’t essentially conflate “love life” with “job”, right?
But if Dean is in love with Cas, then suddenly that exchange makes a lot more sense. Consider also that Dean is a man of few words, and when he speaks, even when he jokes, he does so with intention. He never talks just to hear his own voice. He only speaks when he has something worth saying.
Season 7 is littered with little exchanges and moments like the one above. (Other examples include Dean dreaming about Cas’s death, but not Lisa and Ben; or the funny look he gets in “The Mentalists”, when the tour guide talks about the “brothers” who were actually lovers; etc.) Many have accused Season 7 as poorly written, but I hope by now I’ve proven that this season has much better and subtler writing than may at first appear, and while I didn’t mean for this to turn into a defense of Destiel, I do think it’s an important clue into understanding why Season 7 is written the way it is. Frankly, I think Season 7 should be catnip for Destiel shippers, because it’s really the first time we see Dean reciprocate the depth of Cas’s feelings (which in my opinion were first established in Season 6) in any meaningful way. And while Season 7 may not be warm and fluffy, it is still evidence of Dean’s feelings, because sometimes you have to lose what you love before you realize you love it.
This issue hasn’t been resolved yet, I don’t think, because even when Cas reappears in the series, it’s not really the Cas Dean knew and fell in love with. First he shows up as an amnesiac, and then as a pacifist – two different methods of denying who he really is and what matters to him. The Cas Dean knew remains AWOL, and I suspect it won’t be until the Season Finale that he’ll finally start to re-emerge—to “redeem himself” to Dean, just as he promised he would at the start of the season.
Communication – what lies does Dean tell himself?
Dean lies to himself in many ways, but one of the biggest whoppers he tells himself that there will always be a tomorrow, as long as he can just get through today. He uses this as a mantra to get through each day, but the truth is, it’s an excuse to avoid asking himself tough questions, from engaging in deeper or more emotional introspection. And I believe it’s a learned behavior, given that Bobby at one point reinforces this lie (and so does Frank and Elliott Ness) when he tells Dean to shove down his guilt over Cas’s death and “do the job well, or don’t do it at all”.
The other side of this coin is the lie Dean tells himself that he’s just a soldier without the head for strategy – that Bobby (and to an extent Sam) is one with all the book smarts and planning skills. All he has to do is trust in Bobby’s plans, and everything will work out. (You’d think Dean would’ve learned his lesson after tossing out God’s battle plan during the apocalypse, but sometimes, when it comes to subtleties, a student needs a refresher course.)
Both lies are about Dean not looking deeper, about shutting his eyes to his own power and strength. So when Bobby dies, Dean doesn’t just lose a father figure – he loses his excuses not to look inward. He loses his reliance on the lie that he needs Bobby, or anyone, to figure things out for him. He’s forced to come up with the plans himself.
(That’s part of the reason why I find it so dissatisfying that when Bobby was brought back, it was as Casper the Info Dump Ghost—and it’s my one major complaint with this season. In “There Will Be Blood”, Bobby puts together all the pieces of the Leviathan plan, and frustratingly Dean reacted as if he—and we, the viewers—hadn’t already figured it all out for ourselves. If the point of losing Bobby was for Dean to learn self-reliance, then the writers should’ve shown Dean demonstrating that he’s learned this lesson. All he needed to do was say, “Yeah, we figured that out already” to Bobby, rather than react to Bobby’s infodump in breathless wonder. Anyway.)
Insight and Intuition – what illusion does Dean buy into?
Since we’ve met him, Dean has clung to certain ideas of who the “perfect hunter” is. For years it was his father, though his experiences in Season 6 mostly dispelled that notion.
But John Winchester isn’t the only man he idolized – Elliott Ness, of Untouchables fame, is clearly a man whose legend Dean has patterned his life by. In the movie The Untouchables, the most well-known popular portrayal of the man and a movie Dean admits he’s seen “fifty times”, Ness is a straight-shooting, competent hero gifted with purpose and vision (also: a snazzy dresser). Dean likes to think of him as the Platonic ideal of a Hunter, even before he learns that the real-life Ness was in fact one, and uses the legend of Ness as a template around which to order his own life.
Note that Dean was never too interested in the history of the real-life Ness, but rather the legend, the illusion. Which is why, far from being a cute one-off episode, “Time After Time” is a necessary step in Dean’s Journey, in that it breaks down Dean’s illusions about what it means to be a good hunter. The real-life Ness, Dean learns, is nothing like the illusion. He is a cruel, cold, broken man—a good hunter, yes, but no sense of compassion or intuition, two humanizing attributes Dean prides himself on. He is not someone Dean should want to be like. And now that he’s met the man for himself and seen his flaws, Dean no longer needs to hold himself up to an impossible standard of what the perfect hunter should be.
Self-awareness – what attachment does Dean hold onto that blocks him from truly achieving his own identity?
This is usually the hardest issue to face in the Heroine’s Journey, and for good reason—self-awareness is never easily achieved. Dean, for his part, continues to struggle with it.
Dean has always defined himself around Sammy—he is the older brother, the protector, the wiser/funnier/more handsome/more experienced partner of a matched set. Time and time again, Dean has said he wouldn’t know or want to know how to live without Sam, and the one time he tried – with Lisa and Ben –he only did so at Sam’s request. Even during the countdown to the apocalypse, Dean continues to make his choices around his brother: his decision to go to Stull Cemetery in “Swan Song” isn’t necessarily to stop Sam as much as to make sure Sam doesn’t die alone.
Who is Dean apart from Sam? He has no idea.
This isn’t trust and partnership. This isn’t healthy brotherly love. It’s codependency. It’s brokenness. It’s a relationship driven by fear and loneliness. Unlike Sam, who after 100 years in Hell has learned to live without his brother and thus seems relatively at peace (he even tells Dean in “Season 7: Time For a Wedding”, “I don’t need you anymore”), Dean is terrified that without Sam, he is nothing. When you’re that ruled by fear, how can you love anyone?
Thus the writers have steadily worked to erode Dean’s dependency on his brother this season, first with an (admittedly flimsy) excuse to shatter Sam’s trust in Dean – killing Amy – then by splitting the pair of them up (enter Garth and Becky, stage left), and then finally by the reemergence of Hallucifer. Dean can’t depend on Sam the same way he used to, because Dean needs to learn to depend on himself.
Has Dean learned how to do it yet? I’m not sure. Frankly, I think this struggle will probably be the thing that breaks him, and leads into the next stage of his Heroine’s Journey, Death and Rebirth. Because the one lesson Dean has yet to learn is that loving and needing aren’t the same thing; that it’s okay to rely on yourself, and it doesn’t mean you love those around you any less. Dean is a more capable hunter and a better man than he has ever given himself credit for, and one day he actually must learn how to believe that, if he is ever to continue growing as a character.
Self-awareness has always been Dean’s greatest struggle. But hopefully, he won’t struggle with it forever.
Tomorrow: How the next few stages of the Heroine’s Journey offer some clues to what may go down in the season finale, and beyond. Read it here.